Every week during the growing season, my husband and I cart our family’s grassfed meats to market. We sell pork chops for $11 a pound; ground beef goes for $7.50.
Every week, we meet someone who tells us the prices are too high.
In fact, at those prices, the average net income for our family members has maxed out at $10 per hour. But part of our job is to hold our chins up and accept weekly admonishment for our inability to produce food as cheaply as it can be found in the grocery store.
The truth is, food in the grocery store is not cheap. We pay for it in advance with our tax dollars, which support farm subsidies that go to support an ecologically problematic industrialized food system. We pay for it with the lives of our soldiers and with the unfathomable military expenditures that support our national reliance on fossil fuels, upon which the industrial farming model is completely dependent. The prices only look cheap because we are paying for them someplace else: through our taxes, and via the destruction of our soil, water, and natural resources through irresponsible farming practices.
The viability of a small farm is dependent not just on garnering a living wage, but on our ability to steward our land in a way that allows it to stay healthy and productive into the future. Industrial food production, in contrast, currently depends on farm subsidies—and on a license to deplete soils and pollute water for immediate profit with no regard for what happens tomorrow. This is our nation’s cheap food policy: Make the food in the grocery store as inexpensive as possible, so that we can justify lower working wages for Americans.
With policies like this, we are losing our farmers; we are also poisoning our public with toxic food. Between 1999 and 2006, the CDC estimated that 45% of American adults were suffering from chronic illness. You can’t tell me that has no connection to the food supply.
Even with chronic illness rampant in our society, our current government oversight policies for food safety favor the production of unhealthy, industrial food. My family farm shoulders a disproportionate burden of expense in order to meet regulations that prove the safety of our products—even though they are more easily traced, and more cleanly produced, than corporate food. This adds to our prices and makes it difficult for many of our fellow farmers to stay in business. Rather than adhering to policies that favor an industrial food supply, we need regulations that level the playing field, enable living wages, and ensure that every citizen can afford the price of real food produced in a way that honors a life-serving economy.
My family wants to nourish our local community. We want to sell pork chops from real pigs, ground beef from real cattle. We want to conduct our business honestly, and we want to see our fellow Americans compensated fairly for their contributions, so that we can all earn a decent living. We want to see government policies that would help bring to an end our ecologically rapacious, gastronomically toxic food system. We want to go to our weekly market with our heads held high, carrying wholesome food that our neighbors can afford.
Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of Grassfedcooking.com and RadicalHomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.